Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric made the pages of the Wall Street Journal this past week for making truly offensive comments to a Task Force organized by the Journal to study why women aren’t better represented in the corridors of power in American business. Welch’s comments added unexpected fireworks. WSJ columnist John Bussey covered it like a normal news story, front page of the Marketplace section with the headline “Women, Welch, clash at forum.”
I actually found it amusing – if unbelievable - that this man would have the audacity to go before a group of very high-powered women and make comments like these: “Over deliver. Performance is it!” An angry rumble resonated throughout the room, according to Bussey. Regarding a women’s forum inside GE when he was CEO: “the best of the women would come to me and say I don’t want to be in a special group, I’m not in the victim’s unit.” Then he turned to the audience and quipped: “Stop lying about it. Great women get upset about getting into the victim’s unit.” This isn’t new for Jack Welch apparently; in 2009 he told another audience: “There’s no such thing as work-life balance. There are work-life choices and you make them and they have consequences. “
Welch’s point of view is helpful - if obnoxious - because it shows the many subtle ways in which women are held back in corporate America. NCL is an organization founded by women who fought old-fashioned ideas about the proper role of women in American society. Florence Kelley, in her letters, talks about women not having the right to vote, to serve on juries, to earn the same wages as a man despite their often being the family breadwinner, or own property in their own names. Jack Welch’s comments are a reminder that while the face of sexism and discrimination has changed, many sexist attitudes remain. In the meantime, while Jack Welch disses women for taking time off to raise children, he was able to have four children and go full steam ahead: naturally, because he had a wife at home to raise them. Women usually don’t have that luxury.
But let’s say hats off to the Wall Street Journal for doing something quite incredible: organizing a Task Force of 60 mostly women to study the “XX Factor: What’s Holding Women Back?” This body of academic, business and government leaders met and made recommendations. The Journal hired McKinsey and Co. to conduct the research, asking senior executives at these 60 large companies why they were trying to advance women. The result is a whole section of the newspaper devoted to interviews with a variety of leaders and recommendations for addressing the problems women face.
Participants included Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State, Denise Morrison, CEO of Cambell’s Soup, Carol Bartz, former Yahoo CEO, Helena Foulkes of CVS Caremark, Susan Odenthal of Johnson and Johnson and Dee Dee Myers, press secretary to President Bill Clinton.I read every word and thought only that NCL’s leaders would have been simultaneously appalled at Jack Welch’s ridiculous comments but delighted that the bastion of business conservatism, the Wall Street Journal, tackled the important issue of women’s advancement in business in what is still, in 2012, largely a man’s world.